Travel Rule #1: Talk To Strangers

The man approaching our parked car had an unkempt beard and was wearing a dirty T-shirt. My first inclination was to try to avoid him, but then I had a sudden change of heart. Earlier that morning, I remarked to my wife that we’d been traveling around the U.S. for more than a month and hadn’t really made a single new friend or, for that matter, even had a very substantive conversation with anyone other than people I was interviewing for a story.

This realization came to me after noticing that a friend we had met on the Greek island of Patmos a few months before had posted a photo of his cat on my Facebook page. Seeing Vlachos the Cat made me think of all the friends we made while traveling in Italy and Greece over a three-month period earlier this year. Now that we were back in the good old USA, how come we weren’t meeting people on our home turf?We were in Manchester, Vermont and had just parked our car in front of a breakfast place we were about to patronize when the scruffy looking guy that I had decided not to avoid parked his bike across the street and ambled over to our car.

“You’re from Virginia?” he asked, noticing our license plate.

“We spent the last two years in Falls Church,” I said.

“I hate Virginia,” he said. “You should move here.”

The man introduced himself as Chris and he and I got to talking, as my wife tried to corral my two young sons, who were playing on the sidewalk. In about 15 minutes, Chris told me the Cliff Notes story of his life. After graduating from college in the ’70s he walked across the state of Ohio to meet Ralph Nader because he wanted to work for the Green Party and thought that might impress him.

In the ’80s, he gravitated to Arlington, Virginia, but hated it there, so he moved to a town called Strasburg in the Shenandoah region based on his desire to live in the “real Virginia.”

“I hated that goddamn place,” he said. “I’ve never seen more ignorant, backward people in my entire life.”

It seemed as though Chris had stopped to talk to us primarily because he wanted to vent a little about our adopted home state, but I didn’t mind because our morning had just gotten a bit more interesting. Chris moved to Manchester earlier this year and said he’d found paradise. He said he was “hoping to get into environmental engineering,” and I loved the fact that at his age he was still wondering what to do with his life.

“Don’t let the high home prices here in town fool you,” he said. “I just picked up a log cabin, a little primitive but not bad, for 80k, about 20 minutes away from here.”

Eventually, we parted company but I was glad that I stopped to talk, or mostly listen, to Chris. The friends you make while traveling might not become lifelong buddies but if I don’t meet people when I’m traveling I feel a little like I’ve missed something. When I think back to my favorite trips, I tend to remember the people I’ve met more than the things I’ve seen.

After talking to Chris, I thought about how we had made so many friends in the Mediterranean and realized that the reason we weren’t making friends on the road in the U.S. wasn’t because people here are less friendly or approachable. It was us and how we were traveling. Here are a few thoughts on making friends while on the road.

Get out of your car. In three months on the road in the Mediterranean, we rented cars for a grand total of just two weeks and, while not having a car can be an inconvenience in some places, it also creates opportunities to meet people. We met loads of people on trains, buses and ferries and a few more while mooching rides to places we couldn’t get to on public transport.

Trying to visit places in the U.S. without a car is a lot harder than it is in many other parts of the world but you can still park your car and sightsee on foot or bike more often than you might think. When you’re driving around seeing things inside your car, you obviously aren’t going to meet anyone.

Brings kids and/or dogs. OK, I admit that bringing small children on a trip isn’t the most relaxing way to spend your holiday, and a lot of hotels don’t allow dogs, but kids and dogs are great conversation starters.

Don’t be in a rush. People who know me know that I have a hard time with this one. Americans have a tendency to travel like cheetahs on amphetamines. We want to cover 12 countries in 6 days and see everything that’s listed in our guidebook. That’s a surefire recipe for not meeting anyone.

Don’t get too comfortable. When we travel to another country, especially if we don’t know the local language, we are in many ways helpless. We need to seek people out to ask them how to get places and how to do things, but when you’re in your own country, you’re a lot more self-sufficient.

Here in the U.S., we have a GPS and I have a phone that allows me to pull up restaurant reviews or anything else I need in a moment. I like that technology, but it also robs us of the chance to stop and ask people for help, directions and recommendations. Use the technology, but still stop and ask someone if the route your GPS suggests is a good one, or if the good reviews you read about on Yelp are legit.

Stay in small hotels or bed and breakfast places. When visiting large U.S. cities, we have a tendency to stay in big chain hotels, but if you seek out smaller, independent places you can get to know your hosts – who are often very interesting people. In Italy, we made friends with landlords who rented us apartments in Spoleto, Perugia and Lecce and they helped give us insights into their hometowns, and in Greece, we became friendly with a host of couples that ran the small hotels we stayed in.

Some bed and breakfasts in the U.S. don’t welcome families with small children but if you do your homework you can find family-friendly establishments.

Become a journalist, if only for a day. Blog about your travels and use your site as an excuse to interview people you want to talk to.

Split from your group at least once. Solo travelers are more approachable and when you travel as a couple or a group, you tend to rely on each other for conversation. At least once or twice on any trip, split up from your party for at least a half day and see what happens. When you reconvene, you’ll enjoy each other’s company all the more so.

Make the effort. This is really the most important rule. We managed to sleepwalk through a month of travel in the U.S. largely because we were a self-contained unit, dependent only on each other, traveling by car and mostly staying in large hotels. Strike up conversations with people and don’t assume that everyone that approaches you is hoping to save your soul or fleece you.

[Photos of strangers met on the road by Dave Seminara]

How To Make Friends When Traveling Solo

Having nobody to travel with shouldn’t stop you from visiting the destinations you dream of going to. In fact, meeting others on the road is a lot easier than people think. To help you make friends while traveling solo, use the tips below.

Eat Alone At The Bar

It may sound strange, but eating alone at a bar is actually a great way to meet others. While eating alone at a table may not help you make connections, eating by yourself at the bar makes you approachable. Additionally, you’re more likely to encounter other solo travelers doing the same. And if all else fails, you’ll still have the bartender to talk to.Make Use Of CouchSurfing And Meetup

When I travel solo, CouchSurfing is my bible. I don’t use it to stay on people’s couches, but instead to connect with locals and other travelers. There are forums where you can tell people when you’re arriving in a city, see what other people have planned and browse events in the area. Likewise, Meetup allows you to find like-minded people and attend activities that match your interests, like hiking, meditation, philosophy or spicy food.

Stay In Hostels

While obvious to some, there are still many who are apprehensive about staying in hostels. They picture the movie “Hostel,” with dirty, dingy rooms and creepy guests and murderers lurking the halls. In reality, hostels are usually clean, with friendly staff and myriad activities to help you get to know the city. Look for properties with common areas like kitchens, TV rooms, bars and BBQ areas.

Take Walking Tours

Many cities offer free or affordable walking tours. When going on one, it’s almost impossible not to strike up conversations with other travelers. You can discuss how interesting the sites are, and then segue into what other tours they plan on taking. From there, making conjoined travel plans is simple.

Strike Up Conversations On Transportation

Taking public transportation is a great way to meet other travelers and locals. You can ask the person next to you about where they’re going, and about where they came from. For example, on a train journey through Germany, I met a young artist from Holland who was traveling the world indefinitely. Not only did he tell entertaining stories about being arrested for doing graffiti in New York, but we also ended up exploring Munich together.

Use The Currency Exchange

All travelers need money, so what better place to meet people than a currency exchange? This is where I met one of my closest friends from traveling. The line was long, and when he saw I was wearing a backpack like he was, he struck up a conversation. We ended up traveling together for two weeks, and still visit each other in our home cities.


Volunteering is a worthwhile way to spend your time in any city. Not only will you be helping a community in need, you’ll also be immersing yourself in a culture and getting to know locals and volunteers. A good idea is to do a homestay, as this helps you get an authentic experience of a place while becoming close with the people you’re living with.

Book Organized Trips

While doing excursions on your own will save you money, booking an organized tour will help you meet others. You’ll not only be interacting with the travelers on the tour, but also the local guide. Many times I’ll ask the guide about interesting places to see and fun places to go out, which leads to groups of people making plans to explore together.

Ask Questions

When traveling, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask other travelers about their trips, a local baker about how they bake fresh bread, a cab driver about the types of people they encounter or a hotel owner about what inspired them to begin a business. Every person you encounter is an opportunity to learn something new, and make a new connection.

Be Open To New Experiences

If a stranger invites you to go dancing, if a local wants to bring you as a guest to a wedding or if you get invited to dinner at someone’s home, take the opportunity. Again, it’s a great way to have an authentic experience while getting to know locals. That being said, always trust your gut. If you get a bad feeling about someone, get away immediately.

Use Social Media

Social media isn’t just for sharing funny pictures and telling the world how you’re feeling; it can also be used to meet other people when traveling. A lot of times when I’m going on a trip, I’ll put a tweet or Facebook status out telling others my plans. Even if nobody else will be in the city I’m traveling to, they may have a friend or family member who will be.

Host A Party Or Get Together

You don’t need to wait to hear about an event from someone else. Instead, plan one yourself. It doesn’t need to be anything lavish. Even having people get together at a karaoke bar or advertising a language exchange can get people excited. When in Mendoza, I was traveling solo and didn’t know anyone in the city. My birthday was coming up, so I decided to plan an event that included going to an asado restaurant and then out dancing. I posted a message on CouchSurfing, as well as put a note up in my hostel, and ended up having a group of about 12 people come along.


This is especially effective in Europe, where picnicking is popular. Go to the market and pickup some cheese, bread, fruit, cold meat, wine and a blanket, and head to the nearest park or square. You can offer to share food with other people, or find other picnickers to share with.

Hangout In Parks

Not only are parks great for picnicking, they’re also the place where people go to do all kinds of activities. Hangout with people playing live music, get in on a game of frisbee or play some chess with a stranger. When I was at a park in China, a group of girls saw me watching them do traditional dance, and they asked me if I wanted to learn. I had a great time trying something new, and got to meet some really nice locals.

Pub Crawls

It’s almost impossible not to make friends on a pub crawl, especially since the alcohol will make you less nervous about going up to strangers. Moreover, the extremely social setting and outgoing guides help to get people mingling.

[images via ms.margie, Jessie on a Journey, Michael de’Oz, Jessie on a Journey, Jessie on a Journey, Jessie on a Journey, aherrero]